How Humankind Got Ahead of Infectious Disease

With polio on the verge of eradication, a career immunologist explains the medical marvel of vaccination and the pioneers who made it possible

School girls line up to receive vaccinations between classes. (© Paul Chesley/National Geographic Society/Corbis)

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Thereafter, there were all kinds of exciting stories. One of the most important was the discovery antibodies, or antitoxins as they were then called.

It’s clear that vaccines have brought us a long way. What are the plagues that, contrary to your book’s title, are still threats?

Malaria is a huge killer on a global scale and a lot of the disease burden is in the developing world. There are exciting vaccines in the pipeline for malaria.

And tuberculosis, surprisingly, still produces a huge mortality on the global scale. The BCG vaccine, discovered in the early part of the 20th century, is highly controversial. It is used in Britain and used in Europe and third world countries, but it is not used in the U.S.A. One of the problems is if you vaccinate against TB with BCG, you can’t then screen for whether someone has TB or not. If you have been vaccinated, it looks as though you’ve been exposed.

The third is HIV/AIDs, where there has been so much effort and interest in developing a protective vaccine. It has been hugely frustrating for a decade at least. It is partly because the virus targets the very system you are trying to enhance and strengthen—it targets the immune system and the cells, which normally defend us against infection. Those three I would pick on as the major global targets, together with polio.


Interested in learning more? Read John Rhodes' The End of Plagues: The Global Battle Against Infectious Disease (MacSci).


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